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At least Notre Dame knows how far it has to go

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 9:58 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — A big, proud man backed into a tight corner of a grim locker room late Monday night, Louis Nix predictably started with blood-boiled anger at what had just happened to his Notre Dame team before progressing to a more composed resignation.

Even if Alabama hadn’t dominated the BCS championship game — and Nix insisted it hadn’t, despite the 42-14 final and every morsel of evidence to the contrary — the truth was inescapable. The Irish couldn’t do anything about what the Crimson Tide did to them.

“We know how it feels to be in the big game, all you can do is try to work your way back to it,” Nix said. “Pasadena 2014. That’s all you can think about. I want to get back here and I think my team does, too. So that’s what we’re going to have our minds on. We’re going to go one game at a time, but Pasadena 2014.”

What Notre Dame accomplished from last January to this one may revise how anyone measures the distance a program can cover in a year. The starting point was a bracing eyewitness account Monday of what a championship team looks like in a championship moment.

Murkier is how far the Irish have to go to meet that description.

Notre Dame responded to its first big-stage moment in a quarter-century with a headlong careen off the dais. The Irish played too fast and too sloppy, the entire thing a mental wreck. That’s the fixable part, though.

More worrisome is the notion that this Alabama team, this swaggering giant at the top of the hill, may not have even the best team Nick Saban has brought to a national title game. So Notre Dame wasn’t close, and if it gets back here again, it might encounter something better.

“We have to get there, but you can’t measure everything against (the loss),” athletic director Jack Swarbrick told reporters. “There are 121 (bowl subdivision) schools and we’re in pretty good shape relative to all but one of them.

“There’s nothing about this experience I walk away from and say, ‘Oh gosh, we have real problems, I don’t know if I can get here again.’ “

First things first: Notre Dame was woefully off-center mentally. Alabama has won three national titles in four years and approached the game with the clinical malevolence that brings about four-touchdown beat-downs. The Irish didn’t know what to do with themselves.

“If you’ve been there numerous times, you know how to act, you know what it takes for you to be successful in that type of game,” tailback Cierre Wood said. “Not saying we didn’t have what it took to be successful. We just didn’t have it as down pat as they did.”

The potentially more insidious issue is knowing what Alabama was going to do — “They didn’t do anything we hadn’t seen before,” tackle Zack Martin said — and not being able to do much about it. How, exactly, would Notre Dame hope to beat a better team, if it can’t stop what it knew this one had in store?

It’s the critical eye-of-the-beholder issue. Either the Irish had viable talent but that talent’s brains went haywire, or there’s an expansive gulf between the SEC and Notre Dame (and everyone else) that is far more difficult to narrow.

“Their program is where we want to be, where every program wants to be,” Martin said. “I know coach (Brian) Kelly and the staff and the guys in this locker room aren’t going to stop until we get there. But there’s definitely some room for us to improve.”

Late Monday, Kelly said the reference point was set for player development, coaching and recruiting. The opportunity came, and it stampeded by, and Notre Dame will nurse the welts it received for weeks.

“It’s disappointing we lost,” Kelly said, “but it’s going to make my job very easy when it comes to talking to players about how you win a national championship.”

There’s plenty to talk about. There’s so much more to do.

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